CIO, CTO, CDO—Who Does What In Digital Transformation?

The roles are blurring as companies rush to push change. Emergn CTO Fredrik Hagstroem’s foundational recommendation: collaborate.

As more companies embark on digital transformation, the roles of CIOs and CTOs are increasingly blending, notes Fredrik Hagstroem, CTO of Emergn, an IT professional services firm based in Boston. Hagstroem spoke with StrategicCIO360 about the best ways tech officers can collaborate to achieve their organizations’ transformation goals.

Can you describe the relationship between the CIO and CTO during a digital transformation taking place within an organization?

First, I think it’s important to define the CIO and CTO roles. If we use the definition provided by Gartner, the chief information officer oversees the people, processes and technologies within a company’s IT organization to ensure they deliver outcomes that support the goals of the business. As digital becomes a core competency, the CIO plays a key leadership role in critical strategic, technical and management initiatives—from information security and algorithms to customer experience and leveraging data—that mitigate threats and drive business growth.

The chief technology officer has overall responsibility for managing the physical and personnel technology infrastructure including technology deployment, network and system management, integration testing and developing technical operations personnel. CTOs also manage client relations to ensure that service objective expectations are developed and managed in the operations areas.

Even though these are well-defined roles, I have seen that organizations are using these roles and their functions differently depending on their specific needs, market language and strategic objectives, and these roles may change based on where an organization is on its “digital transformation” journey. It is evident that there are many gray areas between the responsibilities of these roles—and we often see overlap.

For CIOs and CTOs, success is achieved through seamless collaboration—and operation—on goals that ultimately contribute toward a shared vision.

It’s been my experience that successful transformations are defined by the organizations’ ability to control, adopt, absorb and scale the rapid evolution of technology and digital advancements within their organization, with the CIO and CTO working closely together to achieve this.

How do you see the CTO and CIO working together?

I have worked with many large enterprises on three continents and have experienced many ways in which a CTO and CIO can and should work together. In my experience, organizations that are purpose-driven are more likely to have a collaborative approach, and that defined purpose serves as a clear guide for both CIOs and CTOs. Think of it as a compass for all decisions, especially in times of uncertainty and change. When there’s no clearly articulated strategy, vision and goals, these leaders may be driving in different directions, leading to strained relationships.

It’s important that the CIO and CTO are working toward the same overarching goals so they can collaborate to institute the right elements for success.

When transforming, roles and collaboration will have to become more future-oriented. As IT becomes more central to the business strategy, CTO leadership of innovation and future capabilities becomes the focus of increased investments and risk. The CIO role expands and influences more of the medium-term operational business.

In addition to a CTO and CIO role, there’s also the CDO—chief digital officer role. Do you see that as beneficial to an organization?

According to Gartner, the chief data officer is a senior executive who bears responsibility for the organization’s enterprise-wide data and information strategy, governance, control, policy development and effective exploitation. The CDO’s role combines accountability and responsibility for information protection and privacy, information governance, data quality and data lifecycle management, along with the exploitation of data assets to create business value.

Short term, I can see that it can have benefits. A CDO role and budget creates focus and is an opportunity to gain new perspective with new leadership and structures. Long term, we see a different story. Companies that approach digital transformation by setting up a separate “digital” department and CDO role may face the challenge of merging more modern processes, technologies and solutions with the existing infrastructure. That is as difficult as it sounds. A more streamlined approach to driving transformation involves looking to the CTO and/or CIO to help establish new ways of working.

At Emergn, we typically work with clients to address and resolve the systemic issues that can create friction—whether that’s budgeting, procurement or people processes—so the organization does not need to add the CDO role.

What is your recommendation for the CIO/CTO /CDO role within an organization going through digital transformation?

Most of Emergn’s clients have opted for a digital transformation approach in a relatively shorter timeframe—18 to 36 months—than we often see in organizations seeking to modernize core legacy technologies. Therefore, they set up a separate CDO function alongside the CIO/CTO function.

A separate CDO function is set up to establish and lead a digital organization to introduce both new technology stacks and modern ways or working. This has, in my experience, been initially successful, but the integration and introduction of the “new” into the core IT organization has always been the massive challenge and where most transformation efforts have ground to a halt.

Based on our firsthand experience, an 18-month timeframe for a deep and meaningful digital change is unrealistic. That short timeframe combined with working in organizational siloes can set up a transformation to fail. It’s best that CTOs and CIOs work in tandem to address new ways of working without an entirely separate CDO role within the organization. My recommendation is to think and plan for a long-term transition of the current organization into a digital business model. As it’s the business transforming, creating a separate CDO remit takes away the imperative and responsibilities from CIOs and CTOs to form the organization’s digital future.

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